Op-Ed: The Real Impact of Billy Porter’s Oscars Tuxedo-Gown

Billy Porter

When photos of Billy Porter at the Oscars first hit social media, showing him resplendent in a black velvet Christian Siriano tuxedo-gown Cinderella herself couldn’t pull off, I gagged. I literally tossed my laptop into the corner of my couch and took a lap around my too-small apartment. A Black gay man rebuffing all sorts of gendered, red carpet norms was exactly what I needed this Black History Month. But the resulting negative commentary about the Pose actor’s ensemble — particularly from some members of the Black community — in the aftermath of last Sunday’s awards is concerning to say the least. What they don't realize is that, if respectability hasn’t saved us by 2019, it never will.

When Porter got the call to co-host ABC’s Oscars red carpet, the multi-hyphenate knew he wanted to make a political and social statement — as any Black queer person granted the privilege to move in such rarefied spaces should.

“I thought, this is the space to create the conversation of what is masculine? What is feminine? What is everything in between?” Porter told EW. “Why is it a woman can wear pants and nobody bats an eye and a man wears a dress and people are disgusted? Why is that? What is that saying in our culture: Man is better and female is disgusting? I just wanted to shatter that.”

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Porter collaborated with designer Christian Siriano for a custom look that fucked with the binaries of fashion in the best of ways. But anyone familiar with Mr. Porter shouldn’t have been surprised. He attended the American Film Institute Luncheon earlier this year in a silk, goldenrod gown. And his Golden Globes suit featured an ornate, pink-lined cape. He was also an official ambassador for New York Fashion Week: Men’s. But alas, that didn’t stop a chorus of haters from piling onto the actor in the wake of his scene-stealing moment.

Rapper Khia showed her true colors in a video, advising Porter to “pick a side.”

“I’m not gon’ just let the LGTB community take every fucking thing,” she said. “I don’t mind if you want a lil’ dick every now and then. That’s fine with me, but you need to dress like a man and dress like a boy.”

She then proceeded to bring into the mix reality star and socialite E.J. Johnson, who is gender nonconforming in his presentation: “That’s why society has a problem with some of this shit… you fucking up the order.”

This “order,” one that she contends has rules about how men and women are supposed to act and comport themselves, however, is one that Khia herself has continued to attempt to “fuck up.” Though she may not realize it, she too upends expectations of gender and patriarchy with her own music. Her most notable hit, "My Neck, My Back," urges women to receive oral sex and climaxes from their (presumably male) partners. Such an anthem of bodily autonomy and sexual gratification is, in its own way, subversive, which is perhaps why she’s been relegated to just above one-hit-wonder status. And as her homophobia shows, she endangers her career further by possibly marginalizing one of the only groups of people keeping her music in rotation.

Then there’s Young Thug, the rapper who himself has an affinity for clothing some might deem feminine. He posted a picture of Porter on his Instagram with the caption, “Now if y’all don’t do this nigga how y’all did me I know some,” referencing the negative response he got for donning a lavender dress on his album cover in 2016.

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While his wish for his fans and others to keep that same energy is understandable, it’s a misfire. He perpetuates and emboldens the same system that brought ire against his cover art, failing to see that Porter’s unabashed red carpet slay actually opens doors for him to wear whatever he pleases, dresses and blouses included. He shouldn’t be encouraging people to embrace the patriarchy that necessitates rigid gender roles; he should be looking for a way out from under such oppression.

And for the sake of noting that it’s not just Black people dissenting, one of the right wing’s poster women for conservatism tweeted, "I just don’t get this ongoing and continual assault on masculinity by the Left. You can be a proud part of the LGBT community and movement without attacking traditional men and marriage at every turn.”

But the idea that masculinity is somehow under attack because a man wears a dress — or makeup or weave or acrylics, for that matter — is grossly hyperbolic and even ahistorical, since men across cultures and generations have engaged in what we, today, might call gender nonconformity.

What these responses to Porter’s now-iconic red carpet moment reveal is that there’s an enduring effort to reinforce a way of life that none of us benefit from. And while Porter knew from the jump he would have to pay dust to the haters, their sentiments signal how far we as a society actually haven’t come. No matter how many Best Dressed lists Porter nabbed a spot on (and there were many!), there will still be people who interpret his ensemble as a personal attack on their own identity, all because he’s living life as his most authentic self.

Admittedly, as someone Black, queer, and gender nonconforming, I do find some encouragement in all of this. Though Porter is a cis, seemingly fit man of some sort of wealth and status — all parts of his being that allow his gender nonconformity to be more palatable to the broader public — this type of representation on Hollywood’s biggest night has the potential to do wonders for so many of us in need of visibility. Take, for example, the child of a woman named Nadia, who wrote a letter to Porter about his outfit.

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“I wanted to express my deepest gratitude for and of Mr. Porter wearing genderfluid clothes to the awards shows this season,” she said in the note, which the actor posted to his Instagram story. “When my child came home from school today having been teased for wearing a mix of ‘girl clothes’ and ‘boy clothes,’ I had Mr. Porter’s red carpet photos from the Oscars last night waiting on my computer to show them … I hope somehow [Porter] learns that for one special child out there, he eased their hard day, showed them the possibility of a more inclusive future, and reminded them that they are not alone.”

And that’s what it’s about, unlocking possibilities — beyond clothing — for those who need such freedom. And even those, like Khia, Young Thug, and She Who Must Not Be Named, who don’t realize they need it, too.

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